A couple of North Korea stories recently caught my attention and while I well know that any information that comes out of the country has to be taken with a whole shaker of salt, the dynamic between the two really put into stark contrast between the haves and have-nots in that country. Nothing against the Occupy movement, but honestly “the 99%” of the US knows absolutely nothing about repression and wealth inequality when compared to 99.9% of the DPRK populace who don’t seem to even have the strength to complain, much less a Facebook account to complain on.
First lets take a look at the haves. From the AFP we have this report of a new luxury goods department store opening in Pyongyang. This would appear to mesh in with reports of massive construction and rejuvination projects around the capital in preparation for the 2012 celebrations commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the “Eternal President“. The store is said to sell a wide variety of goods from clothes and furniture to food and medicines. High-end brands such as Chanel and Armani are also available, although according to Chanel no permission has been given to act as a distributor. It’s likely safe to assume that the purpose of Potongkang is to provide a non-black market source of goods for the Pyongyang elite and also generate the hard currency needed by the nation for its Pyongyang projects, which have been chronically underfunded.
As said above, the current construction boom in Pyongyang is racing towards the 2012 celebrations, to provide proof of North Korea being a “great and prosperous nation”. Despite other pressing needs in the country, it would seem these projects are consuming all available resources, including drafting students and military as construction workers. Around the city, new apartment high-rises have sprung up along with parks, theaters and other public venues (although not likely actually open to the public). Even the iconic eyesore Ryungyong Hotel (류경호텔) is at least superficially near completion, almost 20 years after work originally halted. Combine this with the stories of increased cellular, and even smartphone, availability and even brief nudity on government controlled TV and it seems life is getting better for the haves, or at least they can have more.
On the other side of the equation, we have reports from Yonhap among others of the realities of the other side of North Korean life from face-to-face interviews. Civic groups Greater Korea United and the Committee for the Democratization of North Korea conducted the interviews with 14 North Korean citizens in a Chinese border city in August and released the results and some video clips this week. Lowlights include the currency reform and chronic food shortages already discussed on this blog. Additionally we have word of a growing drug problem in the North with widely available “ice” (methamphetamine) which has become a replacement cure-all for the necessary but nearly impossible to obtain medicines for any number of diseases. Like the South, there is also a growing number of suicides in the nation, although I dare say North Koreans have much better reason to consider it. Undoubtedly these interviews have been presented with the specific agenda of painting a bleak picture, and thus garnering further support, but the hard evidence does tend to back it up. First off, photo-manipulation aside, the North was completed ravaged by flooding over the summer. Given the resources devoted to the capital it is doubtful that any real reconstruction efforts have occurred. Also, massive inflation is continuing unabated, if not outright created by the regime, with the staple price of rice nearly doubling since last month.
As someone with a genuine interest and concern for North Korea, I do sometimes have to fight the urge to simply ignore the stories, given that they essentially all say the same thing without any real solutions in sight. Without a doubt, this is a broken nation and in my mind the absolute worst regime in the world by decent measure. How it will continue to limp along, I do not know, the big question being do we help the people (and as a result support the system), sit back and watch, or actively hasten its demise.
Also on the topic, take a look at this Fareed Zakaria piece for CNN on the chances of a popular uprising in North Korea:
Recently, I have been asked to put together a short piece on the effectiveness of Korea tourism promotional efforts. It would help me out greatly if all readers would watch the four short videos below and share their impression on a brief survey HERE.
I have no affiliation with the KTO and data from this survey will be used solely to help me put together an article for a business and economic discussion on Korea Business Central. Thanks for your time and participation.
Video 1: “Come! See! Play!”
Video 2: “Charm Lee – Head of KTO”
Video 3: “Traditional Korean Experience”
Video 4: “The More You Know, The More You Want to Know”
Again, the survey can be done HERE. It’s my first attempt at such a survey, so don’t expect to much. Just a brief form to register some opinions. Also if you have any other thoughts or comments to share, please feel free to converse below.
That is the question. A belated Happy Chuseok to everyone in Korea, I hope the time was spent enjoying the holiday with friends and family rather than backed up in traffic. It seems to me that most everywhere in the world has some form or another of a “Thanksgiving” holiday and this tends to entail eating large quantities of food (which I most certainly did). One place this seems not to be the case (at least for most of the population) however, is North Korea.
Coming via CNN, with have this story and the accompanying video of the ever-present food problem in North Korea. Like almost all of the small amount of footage of lives outside of Pyongyang, it is saddening to watch:
As such, we once again are faced with the question of food aid to North Korea. The World Food Program undoubtedly put together this video to show the dire situation and to drum up donations and support for resumed aid operations and the fact that the North Korean government allowed them to do so shows that even they recognize how bad the situation is. After watching, of course the instant emotional response is to give aid as likely no one out there is pro-starving children. When we take a moment and step back, however, we find a much more complicated question and (as with most things North Korea related) no easy solution. Can we support these people without supporting the regime of North Korea?
To begin, we have to look at what brought the DPRK to the precipice where they currently stand. As noted by the WFP, it has been as especially bad season with many crops destroyed by rains and floods, however this isn’t a sudden crisis created by natural disasters, but rather a long, steady march into hell that has already left millions of innocent lives beneath its feet. While this doubtlessly began with the formation of the state and the Korean War, recent events have definitely quickened the pace. Of note we can look to the currency revaluation (or Great Currency Obliteration as coined by Kushibo and I highly recommend reading his posts on the subject for greater depth) which occurred about two years ago. While on the surface, the Stalinist nation is fed by government rations (the three potatoes as noted in the video), in reality private markets are what really kept things going. When the revaluation occurred, in the simplest terms having two zeroes lopped off the end of won notes (1000won became 10won etc.), the government disallowed use of the old notes and strictly limited the amount that could be exchanged and only that which was already in state banks. This meant marketers who hoarded cash from their officially “illegal” businesses suddenly were left with piles of paper. In a frantic move, last year the North lifted all restrictions on private markets, but only to show the next problem, there is nothing on the shelves and once again the reasons for this go far beyond the natural. It is important to note that this is not the first food shortage in the recent history of North Korea, as beginning in the early 90’s a famine hit the country which resulted in estimated deaths in the millions (perhaps as much as 10% of the population). While the argument can be made that this crisis has continued to today, it is undoubtedly true that a short reprieve occurred at the turn of the millennium thanks to the North’s biggest benefactor, South Korea. While other countries, notably China, participated strongly in the aid efforts it was the Southern neighbor (with whom North Korea is still technically at war with) who most lifted people back to their feet. During these years of the “Sunshine Policy“, food flowed across the border and while much ended up in the hands of elites and the military, enough trickled down into the markets to somewhat stave off starvation. While there was genuine hope at this time and foundations seemed strong, they quickly eroded through provocations and changing political environments. The structures of support that had been built were blown up by nuclear testing, burned to the ground with the election of hard-liners such as Lee Myung-bak and the embers dashed with the Cheonan sinking and shelling of Yeonpyeong-do. Unsurprisingly, with the aid trucks of rice now silent across the border, North Korea has now offered to re-return to the negotiation table, but many in South are skeptical about beginning the cycle anew.
A quick look through history tells you that this is a game that North Korea has played before, playing on the emotions of benefactors to ensure its domestic sustainability while utilizing its own resources for power plays and the personal gain of the leaders and elites. It is easy, then, to wonder if this is just a continuation a genuine crisis. There are most certainly signs of the latter, with defectors calling the current famine far deeper and more widespread than in the 90’s and even reports of large numbers of the military going hungry. However, on the reverse there is equally damning evidence of business as usual. Kim Jong-un, son of leader Kim Jong-il and MAYBE presumptive heir to the dictator, certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering with his people given his girth and plethora of luxurious residences all built since the currency revaluation. In addition to the estimated monetary costs (around 150 million USD), it is also thought that agricultural land was destroyed in their construction and laborers would pulled from farms to build rail lines and roads to them. Additionally, figures have shown luxury good imports of $10 million over the first half of the year, and the Arirang Festival (or Mass Games) are currently running unabated at costs that can’t possibly be made up by ticket sales. Without even factoring in military and nuclear development budgets, hacking projects and leadership travel (presumably to ask for aid), the question becomes whether North Korea can’t feed its people or it simply won’t. A bit of quick math with the old charity line “a dollar can feed four starving children” line suggests that if Dear Leader had allowed Brilliant Comrade to crash in one of his eight or so palaces, 1.6 million children could have been fed for the year. Additionally somewhere around 1000 tons of rice could have been purchased on the open market with the $500,000 spent on high grade beef destined for the leaders table and those of his entourage this year.
So all this being said, where do I stand? Since you waded through the thousand or so words to get here, I am going to assume that you are interested in my opinion and therefor here it is. Unfortunately, I have to count myself among the bastards standing against resumed food aid to North Korea, even if it does hurt each and every time a report like above surfaces (and I promise you, I pay attention to each and every one). I am not among the doubters who believe that the current starvation is a ruse, planned and propagated by the regime to secure aid and supplies, perhaps ahead of the planned 2012 celebrations (celebrating the 100 year anniversary of founder Kim Il-sung’s birth). I truly believe there is a major crisis to the north, but still the only food aid I can agree to is what I would call “hand to mouth” aid, where workers are physically give ready food to the needy and watch as it is eaten. This means no bags of rice handed out in villages, no crates of supplies cracked open and handed to outstretched hands. These days I wouldn’t even consider packaged baby food and formula safe from confiscation by government officials. I do fully realize that this type of aid can’t possibly meet the need and therefor many thousands, if not millions, will die of starvation that could have been prevented. The onus of guilt for this catastrophe, however, should not be burdened by the international community however, but by the leader of this country and the responsability of the people is to make the cries for justice so loud that even his deaf ears can hear them high atop his perch. Honestly, I don’t have high hopes for this and find the Arab Spring connotations inaccurate as the situations are incomparable. However, it is said that that wave that washed over Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (among others) began with the death of a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself for the injustices committed against him. Whereas his face was burned in the minds of millions who eventually revolted, I the picture of someone in my mind which will define these events for me regardless of the outcome.
Her name is not known, just that she was 23, homeless 꽃제비 (orphan) who for a brief moment became famous as she was filmed picking grass to eat featured in the KBS special “North Korea’s Third Generation Succession: Who Is Kim Jong Eun?” and gained international media attention. The filming occurred in June of last year in South Pyongan Province and according to sources died on or around October 20th of starvation. I remember first seeing the video and then the news of her death. Each time I wondered about who this girl would be if she had been born a few hundred miles to the South, she likely would have just been finishing University and underneath the dirt and vacant eyes, you can imagine she would have been pretty at this time and most importantly with a future. Perhaps the time for her being a catalyst of change has already past and photos of her face aren’t going to become banners held by the people of North Korea in protest, but still I can hope that the current times will lead to a better future. Too late for her, but in time for millions of her people who hopefully will remember.
One of the expected benefits of the EU-Korea FTA that went into effect in July was that Korean wine enthusiasts would have greater access to pompous, overrated European wines would be available at slightly less (grossly) overpriced prices, but apparently this hasn’t been happening as quickly as some would like. In a recent Yonhap feature, the finger is pointed at red tape and still complicated tax procedures that are confusing wine producers and prevents the Seoul elite-ish from sniffing and twirling their products. Personally, I do try to keep red wine as my most often consumed alcohol (although noticeably less during the hot summer months), even if my selection in Korea, and especially in Yeosu, is quite limited. That said, I am also very anti-snobbish wines which I feel a great number of European (especially French) products are. My tastes were developed back in Colorado among the dozens, if not hundreds, of low priced, quality Californian and Australian wines available. For that reason, even here in Korea, I could never justify European wines providing a worse drinking experience at a higher price. Back to the story, even after the FTA kinks has been worked out, it is unlikely that these prices will come down too much, as even though tariffs are eliminated, taxes and other fees remain. Likely reduced costs will be seen by the middlemen, but the best consumers can expect is an uptick in choices, especially from smaller producers.
What can eventually bring down prices, however, is increased volume and without a doubt Korea is growing as a wine drinking country. Next week, I hope to do a piece on the Korean wine industry for KBC Business Talk and a full blog post may go along with it.
Today the IAFF World Athletic Championships will be wrapping up in Daegu. Unfortunately, of the six finals featured on the final day, none will have a Korean athlete participating. This cements what was a strong possibility before the events began, that Korea would become the third country in the past 25 years to host the Championships without winning a medal. Even the team’s sadly ambitious “10 in 10” goal (top-ten finishes in ten events) came up woefully short with only a couple race-walkers hitting the mark. While this was not particularly surprising to me, given the lack of interest and development of track and field sports in Korea, what I have found interesting is how soundly negative the domestic press has been about the event. Outside of the event stories, nearly everything I have read about the games have been criticisms of the organizers, facilities and highlights of volunteer shortages, language problems and disorganization. While there have been a couple negative notes from the international press in Daegu, in general they and the athletes have seemed satisfied with the event. This is far from the picture the Korean press is presenting, so I wonder the reason behind this disconnect. Either way, I completely disagree that this events will provide any lessons for or give expectations to the (distant) upcoming Winter Games, which should be a well prepared event.
A GNP lawmaker recently reported numbers from the Ministry of Education showing that, according to averages from their annual audit of student mental health, around 13% of Korean school students may require in-depth mental health examinations. Given the high pressure, constant studying and complete lack of social education that Korean students deal with, I personally believe that number to be short by about 87% or so. During my time as a public high school teacher, I met a number of great kids, but none of them I would consider to be particularly mentally well-adjusted (even by teenager standards), but this was no surprise given their environment. Unfortunately, even when the system likely causing a lot of the issues determines the kids may need some help, it seems the parents aren’t too strongly listening. According to the same data, annually only half or so of the children recommended for further mental evaluation receive it due to consent being needed from parents. As noted briefly in the article, this could be indicative of the stigma that exists in Korea to mental health problems and negative perceptions of treatment.
Last up, perhaps able to give a little shot up to your personal mental health, here’s a new Kpop song I find myself enjoying.
It’s aptly titled “Good Good Time” marking the return of 코요태 (Koyote, pronounced Koh-Yo-Teh rather than my preferred Colorado style of Kigh-Yo-Tee) and is just one of those unnecessarily happy, high energy songs that I really enjoy from time to time. While such songs have been the groups usual since their debut, this time around it seems especially appropriate given member 빽가’s return from being diagnosed with a brain tumor two years ago.
Stay tuned the coming week, I have some ideas in the pot and hopefully something will turn out. Till then, have a good time (a g-g-good time).
Well, I have returned from vacation. Richer in experience and no poorer from the casino, so I guess that makes a successful trip. Unfortunately, as much as I love to travel by air, most anytime I take a plane I wind up sick, so I’m dealing with that now. Anyways, on to my topic for the day. As an outside observer who has lived in both countries, I am often asked my feelings about Japan and Korea, their differences and the frequent hot button issues between them. My living preference should be relatively obvious, given my current location, the amount of time I’ve spent in each country, whom I chose to marry and simply that The コリ in 日本 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as a blog title. That being said, it is still an interesting topic and one I have formed some opinions on over the years.
Now as a man who will frequently think with his stomach, I find an interesting societal comparison in the foods of the two nations (both of which I find delicious). In Japan, as we can see in the left picture, each dish has its place and should be enjoyed separately. The flavors are understated and savory, with just an occasional kick of wasabi giving some spice. In Korea, the dish is still organized, but more as organized chaos. Everything gets thrown together and all mixed up. The flavors tend to be very strong and in your face, there’s very little subtlety with kimchi.
Now how does this vague and poorly put-together comparison apply to society as a whole? During my time in Japan, I felt the country and the culture was very beautiful with a lot to offer, but incredibly organized to a stifling degree. While this organization may make for an incredible public transportation system, living within it was suffocating at times. Just like I couldn’t add soy sauce to my rice, in the classroom I couldn’t add or modify my lesson plans, which were specified down to the minute for each class. Even on the hottest days, I had to be in my suit and tie (dark suit, white shirt, only a red or blue tie as specified on page 156 of my employee manual) because that’s how everyone is supposed to look. On many of these summer days, the humidity seemed matched by oppressive mass of conformity in the air. Additionally, similar to the flavors of its food, the emotions of its people seem equally reserved and held beneath the surface. I know I am painting far too broad of strokes here, but during my time in Japan I was continually frustrated by my inability to discern what people were feeling (and I consider myself a fair reader of people). For Star Trek fans out there, maybe the best comparison I could make is that the people all seemed to have a bit of Vulcan blood in them, with the suppression of emotion as a cultural trait.
Korea, on the other hand, strikes me as a lot like a good bowl of bibimbap. For all it’s disorganization and madness on appearance, everything tends to come together with purpose and combine to make a great dish. Anyone who has spent any significant time living here can tell you that one of the few constants is change. Often, these changes seem without any rhyme or reason (or notice in the case of those expat teachers out there who walk into empty classrooms) and this can be an incredibly frustrated experience, especially for those who like a bit of order to their lives. These rapid changes can also be seen across the physical landscape of Korea (especially urban areas) where the bahli bahli almost overnight transform some dilapidated fishing docks into a modern, techno playground for the 2012 Yeosu Expo. As for the people, while I wouldn’t consider Koreans in general to be overtly emotional on a daily basis, like biting into a gochu pepper, the spice tends to come hard and fast with little warning. Screaming matches are not uncommon and scuffles can erupt even on the floors of the national legislature. This trait is not only limited to anger, though, as in general I find Korean people much more willing and able to express joy, sadness, kindness and everything in between.
Now, all that being said, I would like to turn to what really is the main point of this post, and what I feel is a strong reason why the bickering and fighting continues over seemingly trivial matters. Despite the differences on the surface, Japan and Korea are inexorably tied and remarkably similar. They are, in a way, like brothers (or if brothers is too strong a word, at least cousins). They share not only physical characteristics, but mental make-ups forged from a similar ‘upbringing’ as cultures (feudal, warring territories unified to kingdoms generally cut-off from Western civilization to (slowly) modern democracies and economic forces). In this analogy, Japan would have to be considered the ‘big brother’ due to it’s greater size, population and historical emergence to the world stage. As a big brother, it often feels it knows what is better for it’s sibling and often will try to force the issue. South Korea, as the younger brother, then often feels under the thumb and in the shadow of Japan, causing it to lash out strongly at even the smallest issues. Please note that this comparison is in no way excusing or otherwise explaining the forced annexation of Korea by Japan, but this time period does certainly provide further evidence and context to the analogy. The fact is the nations are too closely tied to simply wash their hands of one another, but a history too scarred completely open up to one another, at least at the current time. I do believe that time will heal these scars eventually, however, and when that happens a new generation of Koreans and Japanese may find they are not so different after all.
Here’s a quick look of stories and events currently of interest to me:
My news aggregator on my phone this morning lead me to this article in the LA Times. I was somewhat surprised to see it being reported in a Western source at all, but especially reporting it as a plan being implemented rather than one just discussed as I had last heard in Korean sources.
Regardless, I doubt it will really happen and even if it does women-only subway cars are far from effective. This particular plan as stated in the story of only having these cars run late at night doesn’t even address the problem. Without a doubt groping, touching and other pervy behavior occurs on crowded subways and it does need to be addressed, so how does having these cars on the uncrowded, late-night runs help the matter?
Not to mention the fact that while, on the surface, these cars seem like a good idea and may lower the possibility of molestation, it doesn’t address the core issue of some men believing this behavior is alright. It can be argued that these cars give the perverts a pass, accepting that they can’t be expected to control themselves around women and therefor the women have to be segregated. While I can only speak from my perspective (a male one), it also seems like a backhanded nicety, similar to the women only parking spaces at department stores. Women can’t be expected to park in a normal, man-sized spaced, so they need to be given a special area with larger spaces just for them. It may be nice, but it’s a bit of an insult if you really think about it. Additionally, just like the parking spaces, on the subway when push comes to shove (literally) men are going to ignore the rules and use the cars as well.
While I can go on for a good bit on how society and cultural norms need to change in Korea to really improve this situation, the quick solution is not segregation, but rather education, monitoring and enforcement. It needs to be made very clear that subway touching is a crime (via the on-train media) and that those caught will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. These laws should include jail time and examples should be made of the perverts to show others that they won’t be excused. While I know this wouldn’t solve the problem completely, it at least should make offenders think twice.
About a month back, the kblogs lit up with the story of Andre Fisher, a USFK soldier convicted of robbery and sentenced to 2 years in prison. Much of the controversy began with an article in a local paper from Fisher’s hometown with information taken from his family and friends as well as a local news story that quickly followed. Some in the bloggosphere were quick to jump on the “Korea is racist” bandwagon and accepted the story at face value that an innocent man was in prison because of the color of his skin. GI Korea over at ROKDrop, one of the best blogs around the only one really worth reading concerning US military matters in Korea, was one of the skeptics and took an almost unheard of step, actually researching the story (see here and above). Turns out not only did the sweet and completely innocent young man resist arrest and smash up a police car during the Nov. 2010 taxi incident, while he was free awaiting trial (not in prison the whole time as the family claimed) he drunkenly keyed up cars, resisted arrest AGAIN and tore up a police station. Add that to making up people to blame (an English teacher as it were) and I think you see why he received jail time rather than the usual suspended sentence. I wouldn’t recommend trying to point these things out on the “Free Andre Fisher” facebook group, as facts even from those who support the case aren’t welcomed.
Once again I have to thank ROKDrop for really taking the time and getting to the bottom of this story.
Recently, I found out that my very own Yeosu will be hosting the World Roller Speed Skating Championships, an event that I am sure will be remembered for the ages. The link above will take you to the very nice looking website where one can get information about the event, specifically saying “Welcome to 2011 World Roller Speed Skating Championships” over and over. Seriously though, this is pretty interesting and should get Yeosu a bit of notice among an international, if very niche, group. By the numbers dozens of of countries will be participating, going for medals in numerous team and individual events from August 30th to September 5th. This (and other events such as the World Youth Festival that took place a couple weeks back) are really all in preparation of Expo 2012 and while I doubt roller speed skating will do much to raise the profile of Yeosu, it certainly can’t hurt.
Sometimes when I stop and think about it, I realize how amazing it is that I live and go about my daily business undeterred and generally unaffected by living in a country within spitting distance of a neighbor who threatens relatively frequently to turn my adopted home into a “sea of fire” and whom it is (technically) still at war with. For those back in the States and others abroad in other countries, don’t worry about this fact as it’s nothing I am worried about, it’s all just something interesting to think about.
It is thoughts such as this that make North Korea such an interesting topic to me (as well as most other expats in the country, I am sure). The main question revolves around what is going to happen in the future? While from appearance, things can seem entirely unpredictable when dealing with the DPRK, in reality there is some rhyme and reason to what occurs and unquestionably things are moving forward. While roadblocks may appear on the path and branches may diverge, my purpose here is to describe an imperfect, but hopefully realistic scenario to the future of a country that is unquestionably unsustainable in its current form (and doesn’t end in nuclear destruction, that ain’t good for anybody). As a side note, while it is a subject of great interest to me, I hardly claim to be an academic on it nor is this an academic paper. To that end, I apologize if I am cribbing on others works here. I would be happy to link other sources of information you’d be so kind as to point it out to me.
Of course I strongly believe that Kim Jong-il is going to wake up tomorrow and have an epiphany that he is greatly harming his people, propose unilateral and unconditional peace and reunification for the peninsula and quietly live out his days exiled to Mongolia, but in case I’m wrong, what else can happen? Perhaps more importantly, is this what is wanted. In my incredibly unscientific survey, meaning simply what I’ve gleaned by conversing with my own Korean friends, students and coworkers on the subject, I found many on the surface supported reunification but more deeply are either hesitant or downright opposed to it happening within their lifetime. The reason for this, I feel, is that South Koreans have become satisfied with their lifestyle, growing economic wealth (both personally and as a country) and are afraid to what extent these would be altered by a one Korea. Make no mistake about it, despite the pure blood myth encompassing both the South and North Korean people (and arguably more strongly held in the North) these are two cultures that have grown incredibly separate and distinct over the past 60 years. One can look to the difficulties faced by North Korean defectors in the South as evidence that perhaps they are not truly one people anymore and the cultural and societal hurdles between true reunification would be great. Additionally, an even greater gap exists in the economic spectrum that could, and likely would, cause a great number of issues. Some supporters of reunification point to East and West Germany as a model as after their reunion, with a good amount of help, the German economy hardly lost a step. This comparison isn’t all that comparable, however, as the two nations in regards to their economies and infrastructure were relatively close at the time.
|East Germany||West Germany|
|GNP/GDP1 ($ billion)||159.5||945.7|
|GNP/GDP per capita ($)||9,679||15,300|
|Budget revenues ($ billion)||123.5||539|
|Budget expenditures ($ billion)||123.2||563|
The above figures come from the CIA World Fact Book of 1990. Compare this to the most recent numbers available from Korea and the disparities are quickly evident. First, where as E. Germany‘s per capita GDP was around 2/3 of W. Germany just prior to reunification, DRPK’s GDP per capita is somewhere around 1/15 of its Southern counterpart. Additionally, the North’s population is around half of South Korea’s (22 million compared to 44). The result is a much higher ratio of people with a much greater income disparity. These factors exponentially increase the costs involved with uniting the countries. While estimates of these costs vary greatly, the number seemingly most often floated around to somewhat equal out the infrastructure and income disparity is $2 trillion USD or greater (that’s trillion with a T) spread out over 30 years. Ostensibly to prepare for these costs, the idea of a reunification tax is often mentioned in South Korean politics, although it seems talks are only as far as it goes and even in the best case such action is only expected to raise around $50 billion USD over the course of 10-15 years. Obviously, this would be far from enough and therefor only two possibilities would exist. First, either enormous amounts of international aid would need to come into the North to level the playing field, or a mass migration (if uncontrolled) would wreak such havoc on the Southern economy that per capita GDP would fall greatly to even the scale.
With so much to lose, it’s easy to understand why South Koreans, especially younger generations, would be hesitant to sacrifice their current lifestyle for another nation they are increasingly disconnected to. So we have arrived at a point where the North likely can’t sustain itself and perhaps the South won’t or shouldn’t take over due to the great harm to itself and now raised is the question from the title, what’s the end game? For better or for worse, in my opinion the answer lies north of the North rather than the South. That’s right, simply put it might be better for all involved if China more directly took over control of North Korean territory.
Since the beginning of North Korea, China has been (outside of perhaps SK) the biggest crutch in sustaining what is on any account a failed nation. What began with Chinese “volunteers” game changing involvement in the Korean war lead monetary and trade support, taking the place of the Soviets after the fall of the USSR. There are a variety of reasons for China’s involvement, not the least of which being the use of NK as a buffer zone between the Chinese border and the strong US military presence in the South. Very recently, we have already begun seeing China take a very direct hand in the North Korean economy outside of aid and cash. The development of the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Zone and other border areas being not only financed but perhaps directly administered by Chinese authorities. These are steps in what fellow blogger Kushibo as termed the “Manchurianization of North Korea” or forcing Chinese-style economic reforms in return for continued support.
In my view, such economic reforms could slowly be transitioned into a more direct Chinese authority of North Korea. This would occur in the form of a North Korean Autonomous Region being created. China has proven at least somewhat successful in keeping these regions under control and increasing development while still allowing greater leeway and legislative control for their culturally distinct population groups. In fact, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture already exists along the North Korean border and is home to nearly half of the some 2 million ethnic Koreans within China. The reasons for why an expansion of this prefecture into a full-fledged autonomous region would prove smoother than integration into South Korea is a mirror image of the roadblocks described above. While finding hard evidence of it has proved difficult (please feel free to share anything you may know about the subject), I would assume culturally, North Koreans and ethnic Koreans within China have developed among a more similar path than those in the South. Additionally, and more importantly, the economic and population issues described above would be greatly mitigated, if not diluted entirely, through Chinese integration. Within the whole of mainland China, the per capita GDP only around five times greater than the DPRK. When this is split up by province, the difference becomes even smaller as can be seen on the map.
Also, the population of North Korea is less than 2% of the PRC’s 1.3 billion (and counting) residents making widespread economic impact unlikely if not impossible. Finally, given that China is already and established nuclear power, they are in a much better position to control or dispose of whatever weapons North Korea may have developed.
I fully realize that this solution, as explained, is far too simple. I would leave it up to others more intelligent, diplomatic and connected to the situation than myself to structure the integration in such a way to leave all the parties involved at least in agreement, if not wholly satisfied. I also accept that it would be almost impossible for this solution to win in the court of public opinion of South Korea, but over time I feel the economic advantages would win out in the end. With agreements of economic cooperation with China over the region, South Korea could be provided with raw materials and the cheap manufacturing labor force it desires without the need to develop them to South Korean income levels and standards of living (it’s a harsh truth of business, but still better off than the majority of North Koreans currently have). Additionally, with tensions reduced from the current North-South dynamic to the more understated tension between China and Korea (along with all Asian countries really) the need for American military presence would be reduced and therefor a scale down would be likely (an important carrot for China). This action could be combined with the formation of some sort of Asian NATO could help stabilize the region, but that’s a whole different blog topic.
As said at the beginning, I know this solution is far from perfect and incredibly unlikely, but in my mostly uneducated opinion it is one that can do the most good with the least harm. More than an actual plan, this post has been a mental exercise for me and one that, hopefully, can generate a good deal of discussion. To that end, feel free to call me an idiot (but please elaborate as to why), give comments, critiques, additions and omissions to keep the topic going.